Nomenklatura of Signs: Alexey Titarenko

As described by St. Petersburg-born Russian photographer Alexey Titarenko, the photo below, Kino, is a “straight” photograph much like Walker Evans’ Depression-era FSA store placards and signs; but it is also swathed in Titarenko’s visual meditation of the final days of the Soviet Empire. The term Nomenklatura refers to the pseudo-elite government officials who were mid-level foot soldiers of the nation’s Communist Party rulers. This was Titarenko’s first major body of work and is now the title of his newly published monograph. 

Here is how Titarenko describes this photograph:

KINO, 1998 photograph (sepia-toned gelatin silver print) is not a photomontage or a superposition of two or more negatives. It is a straight image of something that existed in a remote area behind Finlandsky Train Station (famous because of Lenin’s arrival there in 1917 to lead a so-called ‘revolution’) where the oldest prison of the city, called ‘Kresti’ (Crosses), is located, an image I found by chance just walking around. The building, with some administrative services related to prison functioning, was painted in a most cheerful way with a fragment of Soviet 1949 cartoon movies for kids Гуси- Лебеди (Swan geese) and had nearby an old steel structure created probably a long time ago to support painted advertising panels for recent Soviet movies. 

This early work of Titarenko’s harks back visually to the first decade of the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union, and his montage images of found numbers and human-form cutouts starkly document the human depersonalization of what was called Homo Sovieticus.

Titarenko’s Nomenklatura photographs embody an extension of the themes of dissident writer Alekzandr Zinovyev, images of the rotting from within of a false paradise.

Titarenko’s next body of work, City of Shadows, found a different visual metaphor: citizens in St. Petersburg streets evaporating into ghosts through long exposures of his 2 1/4"-negative Hasselblad camera. He continued to refine his techniques in travels to Venice, Havana and, eventually, the very different photo canvas of New York City, where he currently lives in a quiet Harlem apartment (complete with basement darkroom) with his wife and gallerist, Nailya Alexander.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2016, Titarenko discussed the evolution of his work.

Ms. Alexander had planned to open an exhibition of her husband’s earliest work, Nomenklatura of Signs, in her 57th Street gallery on March 25, but the COVID-19 virus intervened. As I write this, all museums, galleries, cinemas, Broadway theaters and so much more have closed as New York, the world capital of the arts, remains ground zero in the battle against the virus in this country.

So, Alexander, like many can-do art dealers and media artists, has posted the entire exhibition of 28 photographs on her gallery website.

Here is her personal message about the exhibition:

We live in unprecedented times, in a state of war with an unseen enemy. In such extreme situations, it is more important than ever to stay calm and united. The series Nomenklatura of Signs ridiculed the absurdity of Soviet life and anticipated the collapse of both the Berlin Wall and the USSR. Titarenko’s subsequent series, City of Shadows, cast light on the deprivation and suffering that ensued. Just as those dark periods of human history passed, we know that the uncertainty and crisis that we are experiencing today will also pass. Art is essential to our life — it nourishes and elevates our souls.

And here is how she situates Titarenko’s work in the long tradition of Russian photography that ran parallel to and so often in stark contrast to the propagandistic “tractor and factory” images of the Soviet state:

Working in secret amid the deprivation and censorship of Soviet rule, Titarenko conceived this series of photomontages and photocollages as a way to translate the visual reality of Soviet life into a language that expressed its absurdity, in a hierarchy of symbols that, together, formed a nomenclature — or, in Russian, nomenklatura, a term for the system by which government posts were filled in the Soviet Union. Drawing inspiration from the aesthetics of Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko and other artists of the early 20th century Russian avant-garde, Titarenko captured an uncanny, darkly comic world in which language is controlled and subverted much like the Newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984.

Alexander continues:

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the reality of life in Russia dramatically changed – as did Titarenko’s style, which found new expression in the long-exposure, darkroom-intensive series 
City of Shadows (1991-94). Titarenko’s career is marked by the invention of two very different languages, encapsulated in these two series, each of which speaks with eloquence and precision to its particular moment in time. As writer and art historian Gabriel Bauret observes, ‘In a sense, there is no real separation between these landscapes of St. Petersburg — the City of Shadows — and the series Nomenklatura of Signs, whose title is a clear echo of the communist regime and its elites. The two series are the expression, in different forms, of a dying world …’

Here is Titarenko’s caption for the photo above.

Back of Lenin. This is a straight image taken in an industrial area of Leningrad, near a local train stop. While Lenin was always represented from the front in many photographs of his statues, I decided to take his back, not only because there was something there (his hand with a hat, a kind of cap), but also because this was a way for me to send a message, a message of USSR as a country of inverted realities …  where the back is a new face, and a face is just a kepi.

And another metaphoric statue:

Not all of my images may have a direct explanation/interpretation. This one rather translates the ambiance of Soviet time, the time of fear and oppression. It also corresponds to the atmosphere of Chapter 1 (Volume 1) of the Gulag Archipelago, entitled The Arrest.


In the first episode of his series of artist interviews, Ted Forbes talked with Titarenko about his work as the artist toned and washed a print in his darkroom. It is fascinating to watch this evocation of the art of film negative, the act of printing, at a time when so few photographers are continuing to work in the photochemical realm. It makes us realize the handmade artistry that is being lost. (I have seen multiple prints of some key Titarenko images and can affirm that while meticulously controlled in his darkroom, each print is essentially a monotype, as must be so in any artisanal analog medium.  

The photograph Titarenko is toning and washing early in the video is a stairway in Morningside Park near his home, a place where he enjoys long walks.

In his New York work, Titarenko now joins the ranks of American urban street photographers, the dominant strain of which has a documentary bent: early Paul Strand, pre-cinema Karl Struss, FSA Depression-era artists like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, and the Swiss émigré Robert Frank. But there is a smaller, powerful, poetic strain embodied by indie-minded artists such as Clarence John Laughlin and Minor White. The new American, Alexey Titarenko, is one of this latter, though he keeps one foot astride the rich history of Russian photo-realism.

While his earliest work in Nomenklatura of Signs recalls the heroic age of experimental Soviet studio montage photography …

… his street-wise wanderings recall the Parisian quartier images of artistic flaneurs like Kertesz, Ronis and Brassai. Where the optimistic and heroic images of Soviet pioneers such as Rodchenko, Shaikhet, Galadzhev, Shimansky and El Lissitzky promised a bold future, Titarenko’s Nomenklatura photographs document the cooling ashes of a burned-out, enervated Soviet Empire, with the young Titarenko as both witness and provocateur.


Samuel Beckett: Still Waiting for Godot


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